The friendship between Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich isn’t exactly a secret. The two became close during Kerr’s four years as a bench shooter for the Spurs in the late 90s and early 2000s, but their relationship now is stronger than ever.
For The Mercury News, Melissa Rohlin talked with both coaches, to get a feel for the special bond between the former teacher and pupil, who are now peers atop the NBA landscape. Somehow, they both became even more admirable and lovable in the process.
On competing against one another
I’ll be honest: I’ve often wondered what it’s like for NBA players and coaches to compete against people they like, or even love.
I can easily admit to not being the most competitive person in the world, but it’s always puzzled me a little bit that people can derive so much joy from defeating someone they care about.
It turns out that they can’t always. Popovich, long known as one of the most fiery coaches in the league, admitted that, “It’s awkward because I hate to see him ever lose. And if we would win, which was rare, you’d still feel a bit badly for him.”
Kerr feels similarly, and derives no satisfaction from besting his former mentor. “I was happy for our team,” Kerr said, when asked about beating the Spurs in last year’s Western Conference Finals. “But I felt for Pop.”
It’s oddly comforting to know that even the most hyper-competitive spirits feel this tug in both directions, something that Kerr referred to as “humility and compassion, win or lose.”
On coaching philosophies
Kerr openly credits much of what he has learned to Popovich, and admits that he has stolen many of Pop’s phrases, approaches, and ideas. One such strategy is being stricter with star players, as holding them results in the other players following.
And so, when Kerr took over the Warriors, the first thing he did was let superstar Stephen Curry know that he would be held to the highest standard, for the good of the team. “That’s how we started when he first signed onto the team,” Curry said. “We had a talk…That was something he brought up as setting the culture and identity of establishing himself as a coach. His expectation was that I’d be able to take that.”
While there are numerous similarities between the two, their styles are still distinct. Popovich noted that Kerr has “taken who he is as an individual onto the court”. The two players who have played for both - David Lee and David West - noted both the similarities and the differences.
“They’re both fiery, not afraid to say what they want,” West said. Lee countered that Kerr is “a lot more laid back,” but stressed that they are the two best coaches he’s played for.
On politics and compassion
A team coached by Kerr or Popovich has represented the West in the NBA Finals for five consecutive seasons. And yet, despite that tremendous success, the story for both coaches this year has been about their voices, not their clipboards.
In the wake of the 2016 election, and the troubles currently facing the country and society, Kerr and Pop have helped lead the discourse.
Kerr noted that Pop has always been compassionate, even far outside of the political realm. When he first joined the Spurs, Kerr was surprised by how much Popovich cared. “That was the first quality that stood out,” Kerr said. “He wanted to know about my life, my background, my family, my kids.”
Since then, both men have found the power in expressing their viewpoints, and using their platform. But it’s not just about making a point, and walking away. Kerr said that Popovich used to separate players by viewpoints during practice, simply to create a dialogue that would force everyone to expand their beliefs, and open their minds.
According to Kerr, Pop would separate the team based on who they voted for, or how they felt about tax reform, just to make people think.
And with kindred spirits in each other, that conversation has continued, even though Kerr hasn’t donned a Spurs jersey in 15 years. “We’ll text each other right now when something will happen or something will be said by the current administration that’s just mind-blowing and nobody does anything about it,” Popovich said. “The congressmen are all sitting on their thumbs afraid of him. It always intrigues us.”
Their beliefs and values will always bond the two men. Kerr noted that they talk regularly, and will remain best friends long after coaching is in the rear view mirror.
Just as it should be.